Activists are hailing the demise of one of Utah’s most notorious polluters as a victory for citizen activism, but some wonder why it took so long.
After 33 years of incinerating medical waste in Utah on the edge of Davis County’s growing subdivisions, Stericycle’s North Salt Lake incinerator closed for good on Friday, lowering the curtain on a drawn-out drama about the company’s alleged failure to control toxic emissions and efforts to cover it up.
Before the plant was forced to upgrade its operations a few years ago, the plant’s emissions control equipment sometimes went offline during power outages, causing noticeable black clouds over the Foxboro neighborhood, according to local residents.
The Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) later determined that the facility exceeded its emission limits and had stack tests rigged to create the false impression that the facility was in compliance with its permit. This resulted in a record $2.3 million fine against Stericycle in 2014 and an agreement to move the incinerator to a sparsely populated part of Tooele County.
When that plan fell through in 2019, DEQ asked Stericycle to stop burning in Utah within three years. The permit to incinerate waste expired on July 1, according to DEQ spokesman Matt McPherson.
For Alicia Connell, that day should have come much sooner.
“I’m grateful to see that this company is no longer harming our children,” said Connell, a former Foxboro resident and mother who led the fight against the incinerator. “Utah is all about doing good business. That wasn’t a good deal. They took advantage of the fact that Utah wasn’t monitoring everything they were doing every minute.”
A real estate agent who later moved to Farmington, Connell maintained close ties with the Foxboro community and later went to the legislature on their behalf to lobby for legislative changes, forcing Stericycle to make operational changes.
Stericycle officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Based in Illinois, the company is a global processor of medical waste and biohazardous materials with operations in virtually every other state and 16 other nations. But it only operates incinerators at a handful of locations.
Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment (UPHE), credited civic activists like Connell with bringing government and public attention to the medical burn threat to Utah.
“After years of town meetings, protest rallies, meetings with the governor and state officials, criminal investigations and even a march led by Erin Brockovich, public health protection in North Salt Lake has finally won a hard-fought victory,” Moench said in a statement Tuesday . “Make no mistake, it was citizen activism that forced the state and federal government to put enough pressure on Stericycle that closing their incinerator was their only viable option.”
After Utah’s record fine, the US Environmental Protection Agency launched its own enforcement action, resulting in an additional $2.6 million in tax returns last year. Most of that money was used to help a Davis County school district purchase low-emission buses.
“Medical waste incinerators must operate in strict compliance with our nation’s clean air laws,” said Jean Williams, deputy assistant attorney general with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources at the Department of Justice. “Stericycle has installed new pollution controls and made operational changes to address the violations alleged in the complaint.”
What worried Connell and others was Stericycle’s reluctance to modernize its plant willingly in the face of intense public pressure.
Incineration of medical waste is a harmful and unnecessary practice, according to UPHE.
“It just served to spread toxins throughout the community and even create new ones,” executive director Jonny Vasic said. “Granting Stericycle its original approval in 1989 was controversial at the time, but over the past 15 years that has escalated dramatically.”
When Stericycle began operations in North Salt Lake, there were only a few homes near the site at 90 N. 1100 West. However, over the years, homes and schools developed to the property line, and a major trailhead for the Legacy Parkway bike path was built nearby.
What was once an isolated place has long since become a neighborhood with an industrial incinerator at its heart.
Instead of cleaning up plant operations as more people moved to the area, Stericycle allowed power outages to disrupt its equipment and release smoke laden with hazardous substances into neighborhoods, according to Connell and environmental activists.
Backup power systems could have minimized these “disruptive” events that occurred every other week, but Stericycle would not agree to install them, Connell said.
“The technology was old and outdated and they obviously weren’t interested in making things better without being forced to,” she said. “They weren’t willing to sit down to discuss making things better.”
With help from then-Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, Connell, urged the Utah legislature to mandate upgrades to incinerator plants, which have since helped limit emissions at Stericycle.
“They found loopholes so they could burn things they weren’t supposed to burn,” Connell said. “You could have added a battery backup yourself. I shouldn’t have gone to the legislature and fought for two years to get them to do it.”
https://www.sltrib.com/news/environment/2022/07/05/after-years-incinerating-medical/ After 33 years of incinerating medical waste, Stericycle is closing its North Salt Lake facility